Saving Energy and Stress at Thanksgiving!

Anytime you’re making a special meal, you can end up running out of space on the stovetop or in the oven.  Thanksgiving seems to be the hardest meal that most of us coordinate – especially if you have a “mixed” (veg and non-veg) family.  Never fear – I’m here to help you plan ahead and get everything on the table, hot, at the same time.

1.    Several days or weeks ahead – make a menu and a game plan.  Remember – not everything has to be made on Thanksgiving Day (nor should it).  Think about which dishes need last minute preparation, and which can be prepared days or hours ahead and kept warm or re-heated. Even I, the Queen of Procrastination ™, do this for Thanksgiving.
2.    Use your oven wisely.  If you have several dishes that can be baked at the same temperature, bake them at the same time.  Pies should be baked the day before so they can cool properly.  Bonus – less heat in the kitchen on the big day.
3.    Remember that your handy dandy slow cooker (aka crockpot) can be used instead of the stovetop or oven for any course in your holiday meal.  You can either cook in it (see recipes below), or you can use it to keep dishes warm, or to re-heat dishes that you’ve made ahead.  This is especially nice for foods like gravy.  Traditionally, gravy has been the culinary equivalent of extemporaneous public speaking.  With a crockpot, you need not make it on the spot, at the last possible minute, while everyone is waiting.  You can make it one or two days ahead, lump-free, and re-heat it gently.  Just a whisk now and then will keep it perfect.
4.    You can even keep the oven cool and cook your main dish in the crockpot if you have a small group around your Thanksgiving table, or if you have just a few vegetarians eating with a larger group of turkey eaters.
5.    Think beyond the crockpot to other “miracle” appliances that can help you get dinner on the table.  Pressure cookers, rice cookers, steamers, and microwave ovens can all be used effectively to make meal preparation more efficient and less stressful.
6.    Have some nibbles on hand for the early arrivers and the hungry folks who put stress on the cook.  Nuts are a delicious and seasonal snack.  In addition, a hot appetizer (made and kept warm in the crockpot) can be set up on the sideboard with some crackers and vegetable sticks to keep the idlers and tasters occupied and out of the cook’s way.

Here is a whole menu of slow cooker Thanksgiving dishes.  Just pick one or two to ease the overcrowding on your stovetop this holiday, and take some of the last-minute stress out of your meal.  It’s a holiday, remember?

Also – if you’re going to a potluck Thanksgiving dinner, taking a dish in a crockpot will save a lot of re-heating hassle.  Some of the newer slow cookers come with their own insulated carriers, or you can buy them separately.  Or just wrap put your slow cooker in a large terry towel and put it in a sturdy box to transport it to your next holiday event.

Be thankful you have friends and family to cook for.  Happy Holidays!

Cajun Spiced Pecans
Calm those ragin’ Cajun appetites until dinner is ready.
Recipe adapted from About Southern Food (about.com)
Serves 8
Preparation Time:  10 minutes plus 2 1/4 hours cooking time

1 pound pecan halves
1/4 cup melted margarine (Earth Balance)
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

Combine all ingredients in slow cooker. Cover and cook on HIGH for 15 minutes. Turn to LOW and continue to cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally for 2 hours. Transfer nuts to a baking sheet and cool completely.  Serve as appetizer, or pack into glass jars and decorate with bows for holiday gifts.

Artichoke Dip with a Kick

The classic, with a vegan twist.  I don’t usually specify brands, but these really are the best vegan cheese substitutes available.
Recipe By: Robin Roberston, Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker
Serves 8
Preparation Time: 15 minute, plus two hours cooking time

1 package artichoke hearts frozen (9 oz)
1 jar artichoke hearts marinated (8 oz)
1 package Tofutti Better than Cream cheese (8 oz)
4  scallions, minced
1/2 cup Soyco Vegan Parmesan
1 tablespoon lemon juice (fresh or organic bottled)
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce or to taste
sea salt

1.  Cook the frozen artichoke hearts according to the directions on the package.  Drain.
2.  Drain the marinated artichoke hearts.
3. Coarsely chop all the artichoke hearts together, then place them in a medium bowl.  Add the cream “cheese”, Parmesan, lemon juice, Tabasco, and season with salt.  Mix well.
4. Lightly oil the insert of a 1 – 1 1/2 quart slow cooker and spoon the artichoke mixture inside, spreading evenly.  Cover and cook on LOW for two hours.
5.  Serve dip, hot, with crisp crackers or toasted French bread rounds.

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Notes: Because of the small volume of this recipe, a small slow cooker is recommended.

Golden-Glow Stuffed Squash
Use a dense, orange-fleshed squash, such as kabocha, butternut, buttercup or acorn.

Recipe By: Robin Roberston, Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker
Serves 4
Preparation Time:  20 minutes, plus 6 hours cooking time

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, minced
1 medium carrot, coarsely shredded
1 small yellow bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
2 1/2 cups cooked white or brown rice
1 tablespoon fresh parsley
1 teaspoon dried thyme or ground sage
sea salt and pepper
1 large winter squash, halved and seeded
1 cup hot water

1.  Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add the onion, carrot, and bell pepper, cover, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.  Stir in the garlic and turmeric, then stir in the rice, parsley, and thyme (or sage) and season with sea salt and pepper to taste.  Mix well and spoon the mixture into the squash cavities.
2.  Pour the water into a 6-quart oval slow cooker and add the squash halves, stuffing side up.  Cover and cook on LOW until the squash is tender, about 6 hours.  Divide each half into 2 pieces and serve hot.
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Notes:  An oval cooker holds squash halves more easily, but if you only have one large round cooker, choose a squash that will fit in your cooker whole.  Slice off the top few inches, scoop out the seeds, and stuff it whole.  It might take an extra hour or so to cook.


Old-Fashioned (Corn) Bread Stuffing

This is terrific made with white, whole grain, or mixed wheat bread, or with a mix of wheat bread and corn bread for a Southern touch.
Recipe By: Lisa Bennett, adapted from Fresh from the Veg Slow Cooker
Serves 8
Preparation Time: 20 minutes, plus 3-4 hours cooking time

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3  celery ribs, chopped
1 teaspoon ground sage
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon dried thyme
10 cups bread cubes
OR
5 cups bread cubes PLUS
5 cups corn bread cubes
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1 – 1 1/2 cups vegetable stock (see directions)

1.  Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add the onion and celery, cover, and cook until softened – about 5 minutes.  Stir in the herbs.
2.  Place the bread cubes in a large bowl.  Add the parsley, sea salt, pepper,. and onion mixture.  Stir in just enough stock to moisten.
3.  Pack into a lightly oiled  4-quart slow cooker, cover, and cook on LOW for 3 – 4 hours.
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Notes: If you like a crustier, drier dressing, use a lightly oiled 6-quart cooker, and cook covered for 3 hours on LOW, then remove the lid and cook for an additional 30 minutes or so.

Add 1/2 cup chopped, toasted walnuts or pecans for additional crunch.

Add extra vegetables (chopped carrots, extra celery, extra onion) for additional flavor and texture with fewer calories.

Tropical Sweet Potatoes
A nice change from the usual candied yams
Recipe By Lisa Bennett adapted from Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker
Serves 6
Preparation Time: 15 minutes, plus 6 hours cooking time

Oil or non-stick spray to prep dish
2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and shredded
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar (optional – see note)
1/4 cup unsweetened coconut, fresh or dried, shredded
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup pineapple chunks (fresh or canned)
1/4 teaspoon coconut extract
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Lightly oil or spray the insert of a 3 1/2 – 4 quart slow cooker.  Add the sweet potatoes, sugar, coconut, and cinnamon, and stir to combine.  Cover and cook on LOW for 6 hours.
2.  Shortly before serving, drain the pineapple (if canned.)  Stir in pineapple and extracts.
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Notes: Instead of shredding the potatoes, you can cut them into 1/2-inch slices.

If you prefer your sweet potatoes less sweet, drain the canned pineapple and use the pineapple juice instead of the brown sugar.  Cooking the pineapple juice reduces it into a syrup.  Stir in the pineapple pieces at the end of cooking to maintain their integrity.

Slow Cooker Poached Pears
This light dessert is a nice touch after a heavy holiday meal.  Save the heavy pies until after everyone has had a nice walk.

Recipe By: Robin Roberston, Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker
Serves 4
Preparation Time: 15 minutes, plus 3-4 hours cooking time

1/3 cup sugar (Sucanat  or unbleached)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups white grape juice or cranberry juice cocktail
4 firm, just ripe pears
juice of one lemon (about 2 tablespoons)

1. Combine the sugar, cinnamon, and juice in a 4-quart slow cooker, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
2.  Remove the peel from the top third of the pears, leaving the stem end intact.  Rub the peeled section with lemon juice to prevent discoloration.  Cut a thin slice off the bottom of each pear so that it sits upright in the cooker.  Cover and cook on LOW for 3 – 4 hours or until tender.  Do not overcook.
3.  With a slotted spoon, remove the pears to a plate to cool.  Turn the heat setting up to HIGH and cook, uncovered, until the poaching liquid is reduced by half.  Pour the reduced liquid into a heat-proof container and let cool.
4.  To serve, arrange each pear on a small plate and drizzle with the reduced cooking liquid.  For best flavor, serve at room temperature.

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Notes: For a more sophisticated version, use white or red wine instead of juice.  You can use any pear you like, but Bosc pears hold up best when poached whole.